Japanese shodo (書道) is a way of writing with a black ink brush, which is influenced by Zen Buddhism. For example, to practice basic brush movement for the kanji character of ”one (i-chi)," first one needs to learn how to enter the brush, moving the brush left to right, focusing to get to the end of the line and knowing how to end the movement to take the brush off the paper. The kanji character, the brush movement, and the artist's mind must be one. This process is called mu-shi-n (無心)— the fluidity of the mind, Zen’s ultimatum. After acquiring the basic skills, one can only reach that stage by disciplined practice.
I was first exposed to this process at age seven, when I was allowed to be a student of an eminent shodo master in the city of Gobo, Japan. Sitting on the hardwood floor, I practiced writing the kanji character one (i-chi) with an ink brush; I did this for three years before the master approved my going to the next stage of the process. I began with the block style of kanji, learning basic skills and then putting the whole character together in balance. Then I learned the position of the character and the layout on the Japanese mulberry rice paper. It was important to learn the speed of the brush movement and the appropriate amount of ink in the brush, so as not to poke a hole in the fragile paper.
There is no perfection in this disciplined art. There is no revision. One executes only once in the moment. In shodo, the artist's style is clearly identifiable, but each piece of the artwork is not the same. If the shodo artist's execution of the first stroke in terms of the position on the paper, the amount of ink, and the movement of the brush fails, the whole precious paper is wasted. After repetitive disciplined practice, one still loses the fluidity of the mind in each execution, even with a master shodo artist, as there is no perfection. It is different from “woodshedding," when a musician rehearses a difficult passage repeatedly until it can be performed flawlessly.
I have continued to be involved with shodo in the following ways—
• Taught the course “Zen and Japanese Culture,” which included shodo, at Foothill College for 38 years.
• Gave lectures and demonstrations to students of art and Japanese studies at colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area.
• Gave a lecture and demonstration to the community of Varazdin, Croatia in September,1993.
• Created large-sized brush works for Apple Computer and NASA Ames Research Center on commission from 1985 to 1995.
• During the same period, I created on commission more than 50 small-sized brush works for Ford-Mitsubishi SUPER BIRD event.
Recently I have been creating small-sized brush works on traditional Japanese shi-ki-shi (9.5 x10.5) made of mulberry and rice paper pasted on cardboard trimmed with gold.
Yumiko Tsumura was born in Japan; she received her BA and MA in American Literature from Kawansei Gakuin University in Japan and her MFA in Poetry and Translation from the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her article “Poetry: War, and war’s end, through the eyes of a child in Japan” published by The Mainichi Japan August 17, 2021). Her books of poetry include All in One (Black Mountain Press, 2021), Man of Peace (Black Mountain Press, 2020), Woman of March (Finishing Line Press, 2017). Her books of translation include Kazuko Shiraishi’s poetry: Sea, Land, Shadow (New Directions, 2017), My Floating Mother, City (New Directions, 2009), Let Those Who Appear (New Directions, 2002). Her books of translation with Samuel Grolmes include Tamura Ryuichi Poems 1946-1998 (CCC Books, 2000). Also, as a Shodo brush-writing artist, she taught Zen-influenced Shodo, and has given workshops in the San Francisco Bay Area colleges.